View Full Version : Winged Hussars, "Spartans" of cavalry

10-01-2017, 09:07 PM
What made Polish Winged Hussars an elite cavalry formation? The answer is - mainly their excellent training and their high quality horses (a war horse and a hussar riding it, was an integral combat "unit" on the battlefield - with the exception of battles in which hussars fought dismounted).

Candidates for future hussars started to train very early. We have primary sources which confirm that boys as young as between 9 and 11 years old were already training the art of mounted combat with lance, as well as horsemanship in general. We know that Tomasz Zamoyski in his childhood and early adolescence trained "chasing the ring" and horsemanship at least once a week - every Thursday.

"Chasing the ring" was a kind of military exercise for heavy cavalry, the aim of which was to hit a small ring hanging on a string from a wooden pole, while charging at full speed.

Of course individual training did not stop in childhood. Men who were already serving in husaria, continued to train. Military exercises and various kinds of tournaments and competitions were the main way of spending time by hussars - "instead of wasting time for drinking" (as Żurkowski wrote about Tomasz Zamoyski and his soldiers in 1612 - when Zamoyski was already a commanding officer - Rotamaster / Captain - of a husaria unit).

Tomasz Zamoyski (1594-1638): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomasz_Zamoyski

During the campaign against Russia in 1612, Tomasz Zamoyski and his soldiers had training every single afternoon (after dinner), unless there was a battle or a march taking place. After they returned back home from the Russian campaign, Zamoyski:

"Lived in his house during Springs and Winters, spending time on reading books, entertainments, riding a horse every day, even when the weather was terrible, together with his soldiers - mastering chasing the ring and other wartime excersises during those rides."

When in 1618 Tomasz Zamoyski arrived at the concentration area of the Polish army together with his private units:

"He frequently trained chasing the ring with them."

In 1619 in Kiev, Zamoyski organized large-scale military exercises for all soldiers in the area, which included competitions with prizes for the winners (among the prizes to win were various weapons, horses and other military stuff). Those exercises included both individual and unit (group) training and competitions.

So there were prizes both for individual soldiers, and for entire units to win.

There were also tournaments similar to Medieval jousting. Some primary sources say, that Polish hussars sometimes liked to organize such tournaments with use of sharp weapons (rather than specially blunted).

Antonio Ansalone in 1629 in his work "Il cavaliere descritto in tre libri" admired the great skill of Polish soldiers in mounted exercises with various weapons. He described the technique of using lance in combat by Polish soldiers and he said that for them, tournaments were the substitute of warfare. He mentioned old-style jousting "across the fence" (campo aperto) originating from Poland (?) and resembling a bloody brawl with use of sharp lances. At that time everywhere else in Europe such fights were fought with use of blunted lances. According to Ansalone the Poles considered such horse races and fights not as entertainment but as a pretext for bloodshed and risking their lifes for no reason.

Ansalone apparently did not made this up entirely. For example in 1633 several dozen duads of cavalrymen volunteered to participate in jousting with use of sharp lances in order to honour the coronation of the new king (Władysław IV Vasa). However, the new king forbade them to organize this risky competition.

But a similar competition took place during the coronation of Stephen Batory in 1576, in which both Poles and Hungarians participated and fought with use of sharp lances.

In 1592 similar fights with use of sharp lances took place during the wedding of parents of Władysław II (Sigismund III Vasa and Anna of Habsbourg) - there were such competitions as chasing the ring, chasing "the hand" and duels with use of sharp lances. As the result of the latter (duels with sharp lances), 2 of the particpants were severely wounded in their stomachs.

A similar casualty was suffered during a jousting with sharp lances at the coronation of Henry III of France in 1574 - one of participants was hurt in his loins.

Lance was only one of many weapons in using which hussars were trained. Extensive and intensive training of husaria included also fencing with various weapons, using firearms (both pistols and long firearms), often even bows. And apart from horsemanship, training included also exercises aimed at increasing the overall physical fitness of young candidates for hussars (and later hussars).

Aside from individual training there was of course also - already mentioned - group training (unit training).

High level of quality individual training was required from candidates for hussars already during recruitment to this formation. Group training - however - was something that young hussars learned only after becoming recruits to this formation.

Bartosz Paprocki in his work from 1578 describes some of unit exercises practiced by hussars and their horses. Required skills of each hussar and each horse were for example:

- every hussar had to know his specific position in a battle formation of his unit
- they had to learn to quickly follow orders, swiftly move to ordered places and charge
- how to alter formation during charge, how to widen and tighten their ranks during charge
- how to quickly & sharply change directions of the entire unit's movement during charge
- how to ably reform from line formation to wedge formation and inversely while charging
- how to coordinate actions of units according to orders of the supreme commander

Paprocki also recommended to carry out such group exercises with as many units as possible on every single day during Winter camps and during peacetime in general.

Some other authors recommended such exercises to take place twice or once a month (which was probably more realistic than proposition of Paprocki to train this everyday).

Other skills practiced by hussars during the unit exercises were also, for example:

- mounted drill
- faked retreat
- gradual giving ground by reserve (perhaps to cover the withdrawal of main forces)
- changing the direction of attack while charging

It is obvious that group maneuvers and exercises of Polish cavalry described above, included the training of horses. However, exercises described so far were mostly about various forms of maneuvring while moving at full speed, or rapidly changing directions during movements.

But Stanisław Dunin Karwacki in his "De ordinanda Republica seu de corrigendis defectibus in statu Republicae Polonae" witten between 1704 and 1710 (times when quality of training of Polish-Lithuanian hussars was rapidly declining and already much lower than even in the 1670s - especially when it comes to group training), postulated the following:

"The cavalry should carry out field exercises, which were practiced by our ancestors, in order to make both their horses and themselves more fit for battle and more accustomed to various weapons. As far as I remember, when late king John III Sobieski was on Winter camps with his army at Bracław in Ukraine, he organized such exercises for his soldiers with lances, sabres and other weapons typical for cavalry. In my opinion this should be introduced again instead of carousals. Thanks to that, both soldiers and their horses were more fit for battle."

Also morale is often very important at war. And reputation of the enemy can influence (negatively or positively) morale of own forces. Winged Hussars owed its battlefield successes not only to excellent tactics, leadership, equipment and manpower quality - but also if not largely, thanks to their excellent morale, self-confidence on the battlefield and the dreadful reputation they had among their enemies.

Later - when Hussars were no longer able to achieve as amazing results on the battlefield, as during their "golden age" - it was also largely due to collapse of their own quality, their own leadership and their own morale. And only to a lesser extent due to technological advancements of enemy firearms.

As for the mentioned decline in quality, leadership and morale:

First of all - leadership:

When we look at the battle of Klushino in 1610 (one of the most famous victories of Winged Hussars), out of 28 squadrons of Hussaria which participated in that battle, 12 were commanded directly by cavalry captain (Polish: rotmistrz; German: rittmeister), 13 by lieutenants and commanders of 3 are unknown.

And most of the lacking cavalry captains (13 - 16) had very good reason why they couldn't command their squadrons. 2 were already dead before the battle, 7 were trusted to command regiments (and that's why their personal squadrons were temporarily under lieutenants) and 1 (hetman Stanislaw Zolkiewski) was the commander-in-chief of the entire army (and that's why his squadron was also led by a lieutenant).

So in total at least 22 - 25 out of 28 cavalry captains "cared about" their squadrons.

On the other hand, at the battle of Klissow in 1702, out of 10 squadrons of Hussaria which participated in that batttle, not a single one was commanded by a cavalry captain. And only absence of one of those 10 - hetman Hieronim Lubomirski (Commander-in-Chief of the entire army at Klissow) is justified.

The remaining 9 simply didn't want to fight and made use of deputies - lieutenants.

Those lieutenants often also made use of deputies - as the result such units were not under command of officers, but lower ranks.

There was a similar situation with towarzysze - companions (each Hussaria squadron consisted of companions - equivalent of modern NCOs - and pocztowi - equivalent of modern enlisted men). In 17th century there was not such thing like "towarzysz sowity" (towarz sowity = companion who was not personally serving in a unit, but was sending additional pocztowy as his deputy - so such a man was a Winged Hussar only "on paper", honorably).

In the 18th century such companions were common. As the result number of NCOs (more valuable than pocztowi) in units significantly decreased.

As the result Hussaria slowly became a formation of "deputies" or "deputies of deputies", with few professional officers and NCOs.

And a simple soldier - pocztowy - when he saw that both his companion and his captain didn't want to fight personally - also lost his will to fight.

Secondly - training:

During the reign of king Jan III Sobieski training of Hussaria was still good. Group exercises were still taking place on a daily basis.

But situation quickly and drastically worsened after Sobieski's death.

Stanislaw Dunin-Karwicki (already quoted before) wrote at the beginning of 18th century:

"Now, when our soldiers set war aside and take care more of peaceful matters, when they prefer to act as deputies from Sejmiki in the Parliament or to play the roles of marshals or directors in them, rather than to command in battle or be with their squadrons and take care of war, we already have more dummies than soldiers, more speakers than warriors. Thus we prefer to fight against the enemy with rations than with weapons."

During the reign of king August III of Saxony Jedrzej Kitowicz wrote about level of training of Polish cavalry at that time:

"Mounted drill was already forgotten (...) marching in pairs and stopping in a row according to registery, not according to height, it was the whole mounted drill."

Dunin Karwicki also criticized the level of discipline of Polish cavalry in the 18th century:

"Moreover, discipline and obedience, on which the entire strength of any army is based, are better in infantry. Because in cavalry of our army, soldiers called companions, conceited due to specific reputation, and even more due to their possessions, concerning themselves as equal to their officers, or even to hetmans, coldly endure orders of their superiors; on the other hand infantry in regiments much more accurately applies orders of their superiors."


In the 17th century Winged Hussars used to win battles even against multiple-times stronger enemies.

The victory against 14-times stronger odds was at Liubar-Chudniv in 1660 when 2 squadrons of Hussaria in strength of 250 horses - without any support from any other formation of the army - defeated the advance-guard of the Russian army in strength of 3500 soldiers (1000 cavalry and 2500 infantry):

"(...) A squadron of Hussars under Wladyslaw Wilczkowski (ca. 125 horses), charges against a regiment of Russian Cuirassiers (ca. 1000 horses). Wilczkowski begins the attack on his own initiative. Hussars sustain the fire of multiple carbine salvos and strike into the enemy. After breaking lances, Hussars take their broadswords... The fight is fierce. Armors and huge numerical superiority protect the Cuirassiers for some time. Seeing the lone fight of Wilczkowski's Hussars, another squadron under command of Stanislaw Wyzycki (further 125 horses) launches an attack. Russians do not sustain the second impact. Cuirassiers flee from the battlefield. They spread confusion in ranks of the infantry regiment standing behind them (ca. 2500 Cossacks). Both squadrons of Hussaria, "on the necks" of the escaping Cuirassiers, charge into infantry and literally smash it to the ground."

That event took place on 26.09.1660 between Liubar and Chudniv.